Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Book Write-Up: Language for God in Patristic Tradition

Mark Sheridan.  Language for God in Patristic Tradition: Wrestling with Biblical Anthropomorphism.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.

Among church fathers, particularly those adhering to the Alexandrian tradition of biblical interpretation, there was a sense that the Bible contained deeper, allegorical, and symbolic meaning, which was pertinent to living the Christian life.  They often accepted the literal or historical sense of the biblical text, but there were also cases in which they rejected it.  A significant reason for their approach is that they believed that the surface, literal meaning was either insignificant or unworthy of God.  They did not think that God was subject to the sorts of passions that afflicted humans, such as anger, or that God changed his mind,  so they did not interpret biblical passages in which God was angry or changed his mind literally.  When some church fathers read stories about battles in the Hebrew Bible, they believed that the stories had to be about something more significant than battles, and so, even if they accepted that the battles were historical, they thought that they related to the spiritual battles of Christians to subdue their own sinful passions.  In some cases, church fathers did not necessarily seek a deeper meaning to the text, but rather offered alternative interpretations that were rather literal.  When the Psalmist displayed a vengeful attitude regarding his enemies, there were church fathers who were troubled by that because it seemed to contradict Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies, so one approach they took was to say that the Psalmist was predicting his enemies’ downfall, not hoping for it.

Mark Sheridan discusses such issues in Language for God in Patristic Tradition.  While this book is primarily about patristic interpretation, Sheridan also looks extensively at interpretative approaches that were prior to the church fathers: ancient pagan exegesis, which sought deeper meaning in Homer because the surface narrative seemed to portray the gods in an unworthy manner; Philo of Alexandria, who believed that there was deeper spiritual and philosophical meaning in the laws and stories of the Hebrew Bible; and the New Testament, which affirmed some traditions of the Hebrew Bible over others, maintained that the Old Testament was “for us” (Christians), and claimed to identify deeper Christian meaning in the Old Testament.

Sheridan quotes from the church fathers, and he also compares and contrasts ancient exegesis with modern interpretative methods, such as the historical-critical method, and also the attempts by evangelical scholars to defend the God of the Old Testament.  In discussing patristic attempts to interpret the creation story in Genesis 1-2, Sheridan refers to the issues that the church fathers were confronting at the time, particularly the belief that Genesis 1-2 was overly mythical; that differs from the issues that surround discussions of Genesis 1-2 today, such as evolution.  In talking about the biblical Conquest stories and revenge in the Psalms, Sheridan mentions various approaches that the church fathers take to that issue—-allegorizing the passages to refer to a spiritual struggle, or simply saying that things are now done differently under the New Covenant—-and, in some cases, Sheridan prefers patristic solutions to certain evangelical scholars’ defenses of God.

The book is valuable, not only on account of its extensive information, its edifying quotations of the church fathers and other ancient interpreters, and its helpful glossary of significant figures in the back, but also because it explores why church fathers believed that the Bible was as it was.  One can ask: If the Bible is symbolic or figurative, or not to be taken literally in areas, is not God, as the one inspiring the Bible, being deceptive?  Why would the Bible say that God is angry, if God does not actually get angry?  Sheridan refers to a variety of answers that church fathers gave: that God had to portray himself as human-like so that humans could relate to him; that God did so for the ignorant; or that God was aiming to get a certain spiritual response from people.  God may portray himself as changing in response to human behavior, for example, to encourage humans to forsake sin and pursue righteousness.  For the church fathers, Christians can still appreciate that there is deeper meaning to the text, or that its surface meaning is not always literally accurate.

Sheridan also discussed the Antioch tradition, which was more focused on what it considered to be the literal and historical meaning of the biblical text.  I was not entirely satisfied with what Sheridan described as an Antiochian approach to Galatians 4:24, where Paul uses allegory.  In Galatians 4, Paul is arguing that Hagar and Sarah are allegories for the system of law and the system of grace, respectively.  How did Antiochians, who shied away from such a symbolic approach to the Bible, explain Paul’s method here?  Sheridan quotes an Antiochian interpreter who says that Paul was using typology, not allegory: that Sarah and Hagar were real people, but that they also were types of God’s Old and New Covenants.  I did not entirely understand how the Antiochians differed from the allegorists, for even many of the allegorists did not dismiss the literal, historical existence of Sarah and Hagar.  Both sides seemed to believe that Sarah and Hagar were real historical people, but that they also symbolized other realities.  My problem may not be with Sheridan here, but rather with the Antiochians themselves.

This is an excellent book, and I recommend it to those who want to learn more about ancient interpretation, including graduate students who plan to take a comprehensive examination in the subject (as I did five years ago).

My thanks for Intervarsity Press for sending me a complimentary review copy of this book.

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